Italian Cuisine (r)Evolution

Jackson Hole Magazine | Summer 2011
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America has long had a love affair with Italian cooking. That’s easy to understand. It’s too delicious and comforting and sensual to resist. Our picture is pizza or spaghetti with meatballs, candles in basket wrapped chianti bottles, maybe eggplant or chicken parmesean, with great disparity among the spellings of the cheese from Parma. Getting a handle on the multi-faceted explosion of what is happening in the world of contemporary Italian cuisine takes some thought and reflection.

It was in the 1880’s that the population boom of Italian American immigrants mushroomed from just a few thousand to four million by 1920. During those turbulent decades Italy was stressed by the unification of its city states. Many wars and rebellions caused economic pressures, particularly in the agricultural southern regions.

The United States was romanticized for its images of vast open spaces, cheap land and welcoming arms. A different reality awaited those immigrants upon arrival. Mostly this Italian population settled in cities along the east coast or in the growing state of California. Coming from agricultural backgrounds they often lacked skills for urban living. Although many eager workers found available jobs at menial labor, some utilized their skills in the culinary world. They started little neighborhood restaurants. This was the beginning of Italian American gastronomy.

Unique regional cuisines were formative in the history of Italy, influenced by the neighboring Greeks, French, Africans, Austrians, and Etruscans. Historically, Italy was a passage for the Christian crusaders to the Mideast and voyages to the Silk Road, China and the Orient. The climate diversity from mountains and plains to sea coasts, north to south was expansive. Each city state and region was as described in today’s words, a locavore community. They built their lives around what they had on hand.

The populations of Italians who migrated here generally came from the southern regions surrounding Naples and Sicily. They brought their regional specialties that became what we recognized as Italian food. Of course, those meals were formed by what was available in those times, the American varieties of meats, seafood, cheeses, grains, produce, herbs and spices. Within our scope of awareness, that was what Italian food was. From coast to coast the menu choices and preparations were pretty much the same.

In the mid-twentieth century upgrades in transportation brought change. It became more efficient to ship products and ingredients faster at lower cost. More people began to travel abroad experiencing cultural diversity and broadening their tastes. In the past few decades awareness has heightened. There is almost an expectation of instantaneous everything. Check out eataly on the internet. Two years after the launch of the premier location in Turin, there have followed the Tokyo Eataly and a 50,000 square foot Italian marketplace on Fifth Avenue in New York. It’s a gigantic array of food and beverage plus five restaurants. If that isn’t revolutionary, what is? Imagine the concept or reality of Japanese Italian. Some chefs utilize traditional Italian ingredients in a manner that one would not find in Italy, a newer take on the term fusion.

Our local microcosm reflects a variety of styles. Although a wide spectrum exists, the shift in tectonics is toward more Italian, more regional, more seasonal, more ethnic. There is an establishment to satisfy every palate and comfort zone from familiar to tantalizing to wildly exotic.

Giovanni’s is the most recent addition to Jackson’s Italian Restaurants. They opened for the winter season at the end of 2009. Modeled after its namesake location in Atlanta, they serve a large selection of moderately priced Italian American offerings. Dinners include a free bottomless salad bowl, either Caesar or Garden, and garlic rolls. For summer of 2011 they are expanding their menu to include paninis, some localized favorites  such as trout and bison, plus some lighter fare. Christina Robinson, the manager, estimated that about half of the diners order Spaghetti and meatballs.

Dornan’s in Moose hosts not only the chuckwagon, store, deli, and wine shop, the famous bar houses a Pizza & Pasta Company. It may not be revolutionary, but it’s fantastic on a summer day to sit on the deck overlooking the Snake River sipping a glass of wine while enjoying a calzone, salad or plate of pasta. The homesteading family has had a few generations to develop an impressive collection of premiere wines and select an array of products from baked goods to cheeses and meats to please their patrons.

Calico Italian Restaurant & Bar on Teton Village Road has been around for decades. Calico Pizza was a one room casual kind of place for pizza and beer in the sixties. A deck and second room with bar and pool table was added as popularity demanded. In the mid-nineties a new owner and a major remodel brought the valley the Calico Italian Restaurant with a spacious dining room. Its huge lawn is a major attraction on summer evenings where swarms of children play happily as their parents dine on the deck. Beautiful gardens grace the property. The cuisine is more American than Italian. It’s well prepared, good food. They offer a variety of crisp salads. The pizzas have much better crust than the originals. The entree selections include citrus crusted halibut, steelhead trout, New York Strip Steak, seared scallops as well as a variety of pasta dishes.

With Nani’s Genuine house of Pasta we move across the divide to ethnic Italian. The mission printed on the menu is “to promote the Italian culture through authentic presentation of its cuisine.” That is the heartfelt statement of the matriarch Carol Mortillaro Parker who grew up in California with Italian grandmothers living on both sides of her family’s house. Nani’s started in 1990 in a tiny corner of the family’s motel site in Jackson. Mortillaro Parker was concerned for the deprivation of those who had missed the experience of gastronomic satisfaction that supported her childhood. One of her first moves was to find a farmer in Star Valley willing to grow puntarelle, a bitter green essential for a traditional spring salad featuring anchovies, lemon and olive oil.

Daughter Camille Parker was part of Nani’s from the beginning. Her passion has led her through college at the American University in Rome and then chef school. Her culinary education has continued with her trips visiting and working in Italy. Their menu is printed in both Italian and English. It rotates featuring regional cuisines. Handmade pasta is offered, the fare seems both delicious and humble, made from imported or local ingredients. Far more interesting than the usual fare are offerings such as an appetizer tartino di verdura of asparagus, zucchini and kale with roasted tomatoes and almonds. Simple pasta combinations featuring black mission figs or orange scented pistachio cream sauce with cured black olives are captivating. Nani’s is like going to grandma’s kitchen, if your grandma is Italian.

Il Villaggio Osteria located inside the Terra Hotel in Teton Village is the latest addition to Jackson Hole’s Fine Dining Group. Osteria opened in the winter of 2008 with a sophisticated and urban atmosphere. The Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has developed into an intense hub of activity surrounding a great ski hill. Osteria is action central, serving several hundred covers a day.

Paul O’Connor, executive chef and partner, is sublimely obsessed with attention to detail. He carries a childhood memory of block parties with his Italian grandparents in Rutland, Vermont. O’Connor graduated from the Culinary Institute of America before age twenty. He helmed the kitchen at Old Yellowstone Garage before the owners moved to Italy and left our bereft community in its wake.

At Osteria, they import specialized Italian ingredients by the ton. Several kinds of cheeses and sausages are house made. They have a pasta machine that is making about thirty pounds of pasta a day from a particular kind of organic, imported flour. O’Connor is ruminating about how and where he will get 180 fresh local eggs to improve his pasta every day. He is envisioning making and aging salumi next. We’ll see what comes after.

The menu includes delicacies such as fresh grill baby octopus with spicy San Marzano tomato sauce with housemade chorizo, arugula and vegetables; roasted beets with ricotta salata, pistachios and fresh basil; porcini spaghetti (pasta made with powdered mushrooms) with sauteed wild mushrooms, toasted pine nuts, fresh basil and cacio di bosco; veal saltimbocca with Italian red rice, glazed carrots, San Daniele prosciutt, sage and marsala demiglace; braised pork shank with yam hash, balsamic chard, and wild mushroom demiglace. The eclairs on the dessert menu feature a chocolate sauce with extra virgin olive oil and brandy pastry cream.

It’s not as important to understand what’s going on with Italian cuisine as it is to know what you like. What you want for dinner tonight and where you can find it is what’s vital.


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